The pub was the same as it was every other night he'd come in here, and the content of his moleskin certainly hadn't changed, but Inspector Jenks was here again anyway, hoping something would unravel tonight. It had been months since the whirlwind investigation of Kate Vine's murder and, as he had suspected, no one was especially keen to talk about Atlas. The Rands were still laying low, or had so thoroughly rebranded themselves that Jenks had lost track of them. The facts weren't changing, weren't offering up any new insight, but he still pored over it every couple of days. It was futile but also an impossible mystery to ignore. Was it impacting his other work? Jenks didn't think so, but things had been tense at work recently. Tonight he was nursing a beer and flicking the pages back and forth, not really needing to anymore - he had the details memorized.
He was peering at a page anyway, drawing on his memory of the village, when he heard someone slide into the booth across from him. He frowned down at the notebook, irritation rising quickly. He sighed heavily, signaling whoever it was to go away, but there was no stirring across from him, not even a creaking of the leather bench. He kept trying to work, to ignore the silent interloper, but the presence didn't leave and his anger rose and finally he looked up, ready to snap at the stranger. Whatever he had planned on saying died in his throat.
Across from him, cheeks rosy and eyes bright, was Kate Vine.
Kate the Prime Candidate. Kate the would-be blackmailer. Kate the corpse.
She smiled at him. "Hey Fred."
Her voice was playful, slightly husky, and it was like getting slapped in the face. All at once he realized that he didn't know her voice, didn't really know a thing about her, and he was shaken. The phantom reached out, casual and loose, wrapped her fingers around his pint and pulled it in for a drink, eyes never leaving his face. Jenks snorted and grasped at the spiraling threads of his thoughts. Likely as not he still didn't know anything about Kate Vine. This imposter couldn't teach him anything.
"Well?" he said, business-like and cold. One of his less used modes, but it was still useful, especially now. Don't let whoever this is see that you were shaken.
"What do you want? I don't know who you are-"
"You know exactly who I am." She was smiling over the top of the glass and Jenks felt a twist in his stomach. She couldn't be implying what he thought she was. Some things are impossible.
“Oh Fred!" she laughed, shaking her head, like a parent gently chiding a child. "I'm going to make you say it."
Jenks stared back at her, not daring to blink just in case that would render her a ghost again, would cast her from the pub. He didn't want her here, but he also didn't want to be unravelling. They sat in silence, but he could only hold onto it so long, especially since she didn't stop smiling or drinking his beer.
"Kate," he said finally, almost tripping over the single syllable, managing not to. She grinned wider and put the nearly empty glass down.
"Very good Fred! Very good." She seemed sincerely pleased with him, which only made Jenks more uncomfortable.
He leaned forward and lowered his voice. "You can't be Kate."
The stranger leaned in too, a gesture that felt mocking, and said "And why not?" Her husky voice went even lower and she looked him straight in the eye, which was like ice down Jenks' back. He didn't blink, possibly couldn't.
"Kate was murdered. I solved it."
"I know!" Her teeth were sharp up close and she smelled like ashes and a hint of sulfur. Her eyes flicked sideways for a moment and the light caught them at a new angle. The irises were a deep red, a pool of cooling blood. She reached out and lightly touched the back of Jenks' hand. "You did a lovely job. We were watching."
Her fingers on his hand were heat, the prickling kind, but Jenks didn't move. He was trying to see the red in her bar-dark eyes, trying to see the ruddy, flickering light that hid between her teeth, down her throat. He was looking for the "we" in the planes of her face and when he thought he found it he wished whole heartedly that he hadn't.
"Not Atlas," he said, not wanting to put together the pieces he had, the ones drawn towards each other through a strange magnetism.
"Not exactly," she chuckled. "Poor Ryan is going to be in for something of a shock when it's his time. He knows without belief, or maybe believes without knowing. Either way, we are looking forward to him getting here. But that's not what now is about." She leaned in closer and it felt like she was breathing the air straight from his lungs.
"What is it about?" he whispered. They were so close together and so quiet and Jenks wondered what they looked like to the outside observer. Probably something sweet or romantic. Probably not hell.
"I'm here about you. It's partially personal interest and partially on behalf of the higher ups."
"Oh?" There didn't seem to be much else to say.
She nodded. "They're interested in… your future. Where you're going. What you'll tear down along the way."
"I'm not going to do anything for you."
"You already have Fred. And you'll continue to do so." Jenks shook his head, flat denial, and Kate laughed. "You don't have to change a thing. Don't worry so much!"
"Are you going to drop the Atlas case?"
For the first time in the last 15 minutes Jenks felt grounded. "Absolutely not."
"Then we're on the same page." She cocked an eyebrow at him. "Unless knowing that puts you off?"
Jenks considered it, walking away without answers. His face twitched into a lopsided grin and he shook his head slightly without meaning to. Giving up wasn't his way. His instincts wouldn’t let the Atlas case go.
"Good," she said and finally removed her hand from his. "I probably don't need to say it, but we'll be keeping an eye on you. I'll be in touch." She got up from the booth and straightened her clothes before turning back to him. "And when you run into Ryan again do tell him that I said hello."
Jenks watched her go, weaving between people like a human being, using the door like a mortal. When she was gone he looked down at the booth, the table, for evidence that she had been here. All there was was his near empty pint glass with a red lipstick stain on the rim and the back of his hand, three small burn scars where her fingers had lain.